Modern Adventures for Kids

In 2008, New York City mom Lenore Skenazy was shopping with her 9 year-old son.  They rode the subway, and that day he begged her to let him ride home alone.  Ms. Skenazy decided it was time for some independence and let him.  He returned home safely and was ecstatic with his feat.  But when Ms. Skenazy wrote about it in a newspaper column, she set off a storm of controversy.

Some called her the “world’s worst mom,” and child protection agencies took note.  Others praised her for not being afraid to give her child freedoms not allowed by  “helicopter parents,” so-called because they hover over their kids’ every move.  Ms. Skenazy recently completed a reality TV series where she coached such parents on letting their kids ride bikes or slice vegetables, to give the kids some independence.  The show’s title: World’s Worst Mom.

In the Pediatric Emergency Department, we often roll our eyes at what some kids are allowed to do- ride 4-wheelers or use the microwave.  But we only see the kids who get hurt; scads of kids use microwaves without spilling boiling water on themselves, and jump on trampolines without breaking something.  The key is teaching children to do these things safely.

Before Ms. Skenazy let her 9 year-old ride the subway alone, she had coached him on reading subway maps and identifying uptown versus downtown trains.  It’s the same with kids doing any risky thing, like riding bikes or 4-wheelers.  There’s rules and training before setting your kid loose.

Of course, learning to ride a bike requires teaching; kids can’t just get on and ride.  But the safety stuff requires more parenting- teaching the rules of the road and enforcing helmet use.  When my son wanted to ride to his friend’s house miles away, we went riding together to show how to stay on the right side of the road and cross busy streets safely, and to be sure he knew the way.  And we had him call when he arrived so we could relax.

When I was eight years-old, they built a hospital near my house.  Construction sites are as good as Disneyworld to a child: piles of dirt to play on, and those big yellow machines!  Fortunately the workers took the keys out of the bulldozer; otherwise we would have fired it up and gone for a spin.

One day I ran across the site and into a mud patch.  It was deep enough that I sank to my knees, stuck.  Remembering the quick-sand scenario in movies, I was scared that I might sink more.  I yelled to my buddy, but he stood helplessly at the edge of the patch, no rope or stick handy to save me.  Since no other rescue was likely, I decided I had to save myself and began to slog my way to a big rock nearby.  Three or four heaves in that direction and I was able to hug the rock and haul myself out.

Parents worry about letting their kids out into the world.  If my folks had known about that deep mud, would they have let me go to the site?  Perhaps not, but back then things seemed safer.  There wasn’t 24-hour cable news, needing to fill a whole day with attention-grabbing stories to scare parents.  Every child abduction in the country now gets breathless attention.  Before cable and internet there were only brief TV news programs and newspapers; no space to report every child tragedy in the nation.

In reality, back then children were actually less safe.  Crime was rising in the 1970s and 1980s, peaking in 1993.  Now there is 50% less crime than when I was a kid.  In addition to a more dangerous environment, kids went out without cell phones or bike helmets.  So the world turns out to be pretty safe for kids; the odds that your kid will be kidnapped or seriously hurt are very tiny.

And children yearn for freedom.  They want to explore, push boundaries, and be proud of their accomplishments.  Lenore Skenazy’s boy was beside himself with joy at going home alone on the New York subway.  While many think that’s extreme, even the FAA lets 14 year-olds fly gliders solo.  Makes a bike ride across town seem pretty tame.

Dorkapotamus On A Bike

Summer is coming.  I last wrote about swimming safety, and two more popular summer activities for kids need to be addressed: biking and jumping on trampolines.

Bike safety is nothing new to me.  I grew up with a Dad who was a cycling nut, and a  safety nut.  When I was a kid, helmets for cyclists had not been invented yet.  One day my genius brother Pat, future MIT graduate, decided to see how far he could ride with his eyes closed.  He got as far as the back of a parked car.  After that Dad got us all hockey helmets for riding long distances.

I grew up in a small town, and would ride to and from friend’s houses at night all summer.  It was pretty safe, what with no traffic and no crime, but Dad was taking no chances.  I had to ride with a head light, tail light, flashing light on the saddlebag, and reflectors front, back and sides.  I also had a light that strapped to my leg that shone out front and back.  I was lit up like an ambulance.

Dad was a stickler for the Rules Of The Road.  We went on a lot of “bike hikes,” 25 to 50 miles each, with the Boy Scouts and as a family.  We always rode on the right side of the road.  We obeyed all stop signs and traffic signals.  We rode single file, to stay out of the way of cars.  No one ever got hurt, and we would celebrate the end of the 50 mile ride by splashing into the local river.

I had a ten-speed for distances, but it wasn’t great for riding around the neighborhood with friends and popping wheelies.  So my brothers built me a “chopper” bike from junk yard parts, with a ripped-up banana seat and high handle bars.  One day a pedal came off and I spilled onto the asphalt.  After that, Dad trained us on better bike maintenance.  We did not ride when it was wet either, after the day I had sped down a hill, hit a wet patch in a turn, and skidded on my back onto a neighbor’s lawn.

Though I looked like a real Dorkapotamus On A Bike back then, the safety issues still stand.  Wear a helmet.  Obey the same road rules as a car.  Be visible at night.  Ride a well-maintained bike.  And jump into the river at the end of a good hot day.

Besides biking, trampolines are another fun summer activity for kids.  However, we are seeing a lot of injuries from trampolines- broken bones, head and neck injuries, hurt ankles and knees.  There are so many trampoline injuries that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently discouraged parents from having one at home.

One of my pediatric nurses thinks differently.  He has five kids, and they absolutely love their trampoline.  When their first trampoline was blown apart by a hurricane, they mourned its loss for months, moping about, whining that there was now “nothing to do.”  This past Christmas he surprised them with a new one, and it was the best Christmas ever.  Now that its warmer and the sun comes up sooner, his kids get up an extra half hour early just to get some jumping in before school.

Like bikes, trampolines are fun, but some rules need to be followed.  Only one kid should be allowed on at a time.  Lots of injuries happen when kids fall on each other, knock each other off, or ”double bounce.”  A double bounce, where one kid is falling while another kid is jumping, can generate enough force to break the legs of the falling child.

Trampolines should be on level ground and away from trees and other obstacles.  A tilted trampoline will shoot a kid off to the side and on to the ground.  Obstacles offer something hard for the falling kid to get hurt on.  There should not be gaps between the rubber and the frame for kids to fall through.  No one is sure if netting around the trampoline saves kids from injury, but it seems like a good idea.  Square trampolines may be safer than round ones because of differences in the physics of the mat.

Like we said last time about pools, not having a trampoline is safest.  But like bikes, a lot of kids just have to have one.  Like bikes, be sure your kids follow the rules.  We in Pediatric Emergency Medicine would like a quiet summer.